Leaving Ireland for Canada´s prairie provinces
An increasing number of Irish singles and families are embracing the opportunities offered in Saskatchewan, writes JENNIFER HOUGH
At least 75,000 workers will be needed to plug the labour shortage in Saskatchewan over the next few years, and an increasing number of Irish singles and families are embracing the opportunities offered by Canada´s prairie provinces, writes JENNIFER HOUGH
When Sinead and Howard Morrissey relocated from Tipperary to the remote prairie province of Saskatchewan in Canada, the area was almost unheard of in Ireland. It was 2010, and the new wave of Irish workers leaving home shores was just beginning to gain pace.
Arriving in the Saskatchewan capital of Regina, the Morrisseys, who are both in their 30s, didn’t know of any other Irish in the area. But things have changed drastically since then. Howard, who works as a carpenter, now hears of new Irish people arriving every week.
“I was picking up a visiting family member at the airport recently and there were two Irish guys on that flight alone,” he says. “We are meeting people all the time who have been here two, four and eight weeks.”
The couple and their 11-year-old daughter Cara made the move after attending a Working Abroad Expo in 2009, an event similar to those held back in March which were attended by more than 20,000 people.
The Morrisseys were at that one too, but this time on the other side of the fence. At the request of Regina’s Chamber of Commerce, the couple travelled back to Ireland to help promote the region to the Irish, and give advice to people considering taking the leap.
Since then, according to Saskatchewan immigration there has been an “exponential jump” in the number of Irish people seeking and finding work in the region. A spokesperson for the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program (SINP) says about 300 Irish families are in the process of moving to the region after receiving offers from employers at these jobs fairs.
A quick look at a fast-growing Facebook page New Regina Irish shows the diverse range of people arriving to the area, including singles, couples with young families of up to four children, groups of single men, and more poignantly, married men arriving alone with the hope that their wife and children can join them as soon as they get established.
With no Irish club or centre to speak of in Regina, the page is proving to be an invaluable networking resource where people can swap information about everything from housing and schools to socialising and the weather. There is talk of setting up a GAA club and a community hub of some kind in the future, as there is an awareness among the Irish arriving here that this could be home for some time.
LOCATED right in the middle of Canada, Saskatchewan is the country’s fastest growing province. In stark contrast to rural areas in Ireland, the region can’t do enough to attract workers into its small and tight-knit communities, where there is an abundance of job opportunities across all sectors.
Chief executive of Regina’s Chamber of Commerce John Hopkins dubs what is occurring in Saskatchewan’s labour market as “the perfect storm”. The economy there is growing but there is an aging workforce at a time when demand for workers is high, and likely to remain so for the next 20 years.
Statistics provided by an independent think tank Frontier Centre for Public Policy show that over the next five years, between 75,000 and 90,000 skilled workers will be needed to plug the labour shortage in the province. Recruitment will mainly be in the areas of technology, construction, mineral exploration, agriculture and petroleum.
Hopkins maintains that while the aboriginal people and youth in the region must be engaged, people are needed from outside to ensure employers’ needs are met – and Irish workers fit the bill.
“Ireland makes a lot of sense as a human resource because cultures, law and language are largely the same,” he says. “The cuisine is similar, the education too, so people will fit in easily. The skills and trades credentials appear to be on par with Canada. The major hurdle standing in the way is immigration.”
Currently, the Government of Canada has a cap of 4,000 on the number of people who can enter the province under the SINP, a programme that recommends applicants for permanent residency. The Saskatchewan authorities want the cap to be moved to 6,000 but this has so far been denied by the central government.
President of the Saskatchewan Construction Association Michael Fougere is deeply concerned that a lack of skilled workers will slow the economy down.
“This is a huge issue for us,” he says. “If we don’t find people to do the work, we will slow down. We need carpenters, electricians, engineers and people in every area of construction. We have asked the government to lift the cap on skilled workers but they have so far refused to give us more and this is a constraint for us.”
But it’s not just Saskatchewan that is looking for Irish workers. Across the border in neighboring province Alberta, economic predictions are just as optimistic thanks to record levels of production and investment by the oil industry.
The Alberta government estimates there will be 114,000 more jobs of all kinds than people over the next ten years, half of those in Calgary, the province’s biggest city. While workers were once recruited from Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and other parts of Canada, these sources have run out, so the focus has switched to foreign labour.
Calgary Economic Development is looking to the UK and US, and currently finalizing details of a trip to Ireland in October where a range of Alberta’s employers will try to entice Irish workers to the region.
President and CEO for Calgary Economic Development Bruce Graham says employers want to convince Irish workers considering immigration to think Canada and Calgary first. Jobs will be spread out across Alberta which, like Saskatchewan, is also looking for some relief on the cap on the number of skilled workers allowed into the province.
As well as construction workers, Alberta is also seeking healthcare and finance professionals, and hospitality and retail workers. Final details of the recruitment drive and the jobs on offer will be available soon, Graham says.
For those that do make the move, there is no doubt that settling into the vast provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan with -40 degree winters and scorching summers will require serious adjustments.
But everyone – from the immigration authorities, to employers, to ordinary Irish workers already on the ground – is pulling together to help people transition smoothly into their new lives. There is a real sense that the Irish are not only needed, but wanted.
Christine Gauthier, who works in recruitment at SaskPower and was at the fairs in Dublin and Cork says the company is currently interviewing Irish electricians, and has already made some offers. “We are looking forward to welcoming our new employees to Saskatchewan, and we are all very excited about the culture and experience the Irish will bring to our beautiful province,” she says. “If only there was some way we could hire them all. Talking to people and hearing about how bad the economy is there makes me realize how lucky we are here.”
Just a few years ago, Paul Farrell had 17 men working for him in his shop and kitchen fitting business in Sligo. As the recession tightened, work became more scarce and he wasn’t making enough to pay the bills.
Farrell was one of thousands of people who attended the working abroad expos back in March. Today, he is in Regina, after securing a job with a kitchen-fitting firm. He travelled to Saskatchewan alone, but his wife and two of his three teenage children will follow before the end of the year.
“It was a last resort really,” he says. “I still had work but it just wasn’t enough. My daughter was going to a open day in DIT and the jobs fair happened to be on so we went along.”
Saskatchewan immigration and the company Farrell now works for set the job up, and he has been working in Canada for more than a month now.
“The whole immigration process was very, very good I have to say. After the fair, I got in contact with Saskatchewan immigration, and they took care of it all,” he says, adding that he is “getting used to Regina”.
“Coming here would not have been my first choice. You really need a car to go anywhere, and everything is an expense. I worked in New York in the 1980s and you could get on the subway to go anywhere. But I am growing to like it.”
Farrell says he and his family will stay for five years at least. “We have a lot of decisions still to make, nothing is written in stone but the family is looking forward to coming out; it’s an adventure for them.”
Lorry driver Darren Hogan is preparing to move from Limerick to Alberta to work transporting oil and water. He will leave alone, to be followed by his wife Aisling and four children, aged from 5 to 18, in a year’s time. His base will be in Drayton Valley, a small town in central Alberta with a population of 8,000 surrounded by vast oil fields.
Hogan got the job after turning up “on spec” at a Visafirst information night, armed only with a copy of his CV. “Aisling heard about an information night in Limerick on local radio. I went down and from there everything has been sorted out for me by Visafirst.”
As the economy in Ireland continued to decline, Hogan’s family thought about emigrating more and more
“I am working but things don’t look great for the future,” he says. “Even if things weren’t bad here we would still be going. The package I have been offered is so good, I couldn’t turn it down. The transport industry used to be good in Ireland but there are no opportunities for me here at the moment.”
“It will be tough at first going on my own, but in the long run we all know it’s the right thing to do. It will be harder here at home for Aisling than for me out there.”
Hogan will arrive on a work permit valid for 12 months, which can be extended by two years. After that he can apply for residency.
“It’s a life changing experience but my wife and family are behind it,” he says. “Where I come from isn’t the city anyway and the kids are used to suburban life. In that way it won’t be a big change, but the lifestyle will be very different. The kids are really looking forward to the opportunities Canada can offer.”